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Catholic Voice
  February 6, 2012   •   VOL. 50, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Time now to abolish the death penalty

In 1972, the California State Supreme Court, in California v. Anderson, ruled the application of capital punishment to be unconstitutional, on the basis that it violated Article 1, Section 6 of the California Constitution, which forbade the imposition of “cruel or unusual punishments.”

I won’t go into the gruesome details of what actually happens in an execution; suffice it to say that there is a basis in fact for this assertion. However, a death penalty free California did not last very long, as later that same year the people of California voted to reinstate capital punishment by putting it into the state constitution. Surveys indicate that public opinion is shifting once again on this subject, with more and more people expressing unease with it. In fact, it is likely that Californians will again have a chance to vote on this issue, as it is projected that an initiative to repeal the death penalty will qualify for the ballot in next November’s election.

For more information

California Catholic Conference www.cacatholic.org

SAFE California Ends death penalty www.safecalifornia.org

PNI: Parental Notification Initiative www.caparentalrights.org
Among the more frequent arguments proposed for this most severe punishment is that it acts as a deterrent to violent crime. However, if we assess what has transpired in our state over the last nearly 40 years, it should be clear that violent crime is still alive and well. And yet, rhetoric about “getting tough on crime” even still usually boils down to meaning more severe sentencing, and even the most severe of all: execution.

Violent crime is a serious problem with complex origins, such as grinding poverty, inadequate education, drug abuse and trafficking and broken families — most especially, fatherlessness. Thus, we should avoid simplistic solutions.

For good reason, all of the popes in our lifetime who have pronounced on this issue, and many national conferences of bishops, have favored abolishing the application of the death penalty. In Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), Pope John Paul II articulated the basic rationale for this:

It is clear that . . . the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

John Paul’s teaching here simply applies to society as a whole the principle of legitimate self-defense, which always requires using the minimum force necessary to protect oneself against an unjust aggressor. If society can effectively protect itself against violent criminals by not putting them to death — that is, applying the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole — then that is the measure which must be taken.

U.S. bishops issue letter

In 2005, the U.S. bishops issued their own pastoral letter on this controversial subject, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death. It laid out a number of reasons for opposing its use, such as: it is deeply flawed in that it is irreversible if the conviction is later found to be wrong; it is prone to errors; it is biased by such factors as race, where the crime was committed and the quality of legal representation (and thus the income level of the accused, i.e., wealthy people do not get executed).

Moreover, even the families of victims of some death row inmates recognize the futility of seeking to redress the wrong done by taking the life of the offender. One such outspoken critic is Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. As he puts it: “My conviction is simple: more violence . . . will not bring Julie back. More violence only makes our society more violent.”

One could argue that, unlike abortion, capital punishment is not an intrinsic evil because it does not involve the killing of an innocent human being, and therefore its use can be serenely allowed.

However, while the premise is true — capital punishment is not an intrinsic evil — the conclusion does not follow so readily. Yes, in principle it does not take an innocent human life, but this points precisely to its most serious flaw: that nagging problem of irretrievability.

Inmates exonerated

According to the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, since the 1970s more than 120 death row inmates have been exonerated of their capital crimes. It is hard enough to restore justice to such people while they are still alive; obviously, it is impossible after they have been put to death.

It can also be argued that, historically, the Church has permitted the execution of serious criminals. In keeping with the principles of legitimate self-defense, though, this was at a time and in circumstances when execution was deemed the only sufficient means possible to protect society in particular cases.

But as Pope John Paul affirmed in the quote cited above, “Today . . . such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” This has been the consistent judgment of popes and bishops for a very long time now, and why the bishops of California favor the repeal of the death penalty. So, while Catholics may in good conscience come to a different judgment under the proper conditions, they cannot do so without first diligently studying the teachings of the popes and the bishops on this question and then seriously and objectively weighing them in light of all of the circumstances facing us in our society here and now.

Studies on the changing attitudes of Catholics toward this issue indicate that the more our people do so, the more they come to the same conclusion we bishops and many others have: repeal of the death penalty better contributes to a culture of life, to affirming human dignity, and to promoting fairness and justice for all.

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